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A trio of WWF Conservation Custodians got the rare opportunity to take part in a rhino-darting adventure at one of our Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP) sites, writes Michelle Govender.
In July, we took three Conservation Custodians out to the KwaZulu-Natal bush on a unique excursion to immobilise four rhinos for dehorning and the ear-notching of one youngster.
“Conservation Custodians” is the name we give individual supporters and trustees who donate R10 000 or more to WWF in a year. They support WWF because they love nature, care for people and believe in the work we do. However, they often do not get to see the impact their generosity has on the ground.
Our fundraising approach is increasingly seeking to bridge this gap by sharing immersive experiences and sometimes even creating these in-field opportunities for top-tier Conservation Custodians to take part in research activities.
The rhino-darting expedition started in the evening with a safety and protocol briefing. We were told that rhino work is dangerous and complicated, involving a large team of specialists on the ground and in the air. Most importantly, I remember learning that we – the bystanders – needed to be hyper aware of our surroundings and know when to get out of the way.
This pre-expedition get-together also gave our donors the opportunity to meet the multidisciplinary BRREP team before we headed out on our adventure. I was delighted that the donors got to see – and appreciate – for themselves the deep passion and commitment these scientists, rangers and veterinarians bring to the conservation of this critically endangered species.
As one donor said, “It is good to know that so many people are giving their all to make sure these animals have a future.”
Early the next morning, we set out into the icy wilderness. Over the next nine hours we ceaselessly tracked rhino, following each instruction to the letter and learning so much about this amazing animal. We learnt that rhino do not swim very well but will charge into a watering hole if spooked during an immobilisation operation.
During our expedition, after being darted, one of the rhino took 20 minutes to go down and needed to be darted again. Another was a mother with a calf – both needed to be darted at the same time in a carefully coordinated effort.
The tracking and darting process happened from a helicopter – with a pilot, a spotter and a vet armed with a darting rifle. Once the rhino goes down after being darted, the helicopter team hovers above the rhino, signaling the location of the rhino to the ground team.
While it was easy getting to the white rhinos that were immobilised, the black rhinos were a different story. Because black rhino love thorny bushes, it was pokey business getting to where our last black rhino was darted and fell. And once we got up close to this elusive species, my emotions took over as we watched the team do the dehorning.
While the physical dehorning was left to the professionals, some of our Conservation Custodians were given the opportunity to apply cuticle oil to the dehorned spots and also to notch an ear or two. What an experience!
By the end of the day, we were all tired and hungry, and instilled with a deep sense of respect for what the BRREP team achieves with the resources they have. It is thanks to them and others like them that this iconic species stands a fighting chance.
As WWF’s Head of Individual Fundraising, Michelle is passionate about connecting our supporters to the work of WWF through experiences and on-the-ground stories.
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